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When COVID-19 hit Dayton, in Southwest Ohio, the city slashed its budget by millions of dollars, furloughed workers, and is still facing a budget gap despite millions in aid from the federal CARES Act. In the first of a series of two reports from cities in Ohio, Hari Sreenivasan travels to Dayton, which was still in the process of recovering from the Great Recession more than a decade ago.
It has been more than six months since the CARES Act was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority and signed into law by President Trump. The law included nearly $140 billion to help state and local governments cover costs related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Whether or not they need more is now one of the biggest sticking points in reaching an agreement on a new COVID-19 relief package. With less than three weeks until the election it seems less and less likely that any deal will be reached.
Tonight, we begin a series of two reports from two different cities here in Ohio. We look at how they were affected by the crisis, and how they are approaching the uncertainty of funding their cities amid falling revenues.
We begin in Dayton.
Earlier this week, a few dozen volunteers gathered to clean up the area around the site of the future Gem City Market.
It's a nearly 16,000 square foot food co-op and retail space being built on Dayton's west side, a food desert that has only one grocery store serving more than 40,000 people.
Kenya Baker is the community engagement director for Gem City Market.
We'll have about six residential style cooking stations with appliances and we'll have members from the community that actually come in and teach how to make a lot of the produce that we haven't had access to.
This nearly $6 million project is scheduled to open early next year. It's a bright spot in a rust-belt city that was still recovering from the housing crisis more than a decade ago, when COVID-19 hit.
It's pretty heartbreaking timing, frankly. January and February before COVID were two of the best months Dayton's ever seen economically since the Great Recession.
Democrat Nan Whaley has been Dayton's mayor since 2014. When the country came to a screeching halt this spring, Whaley, like many mayors around the country, was facing a daunting public health crisis and a budget crisis.
People didn't know what the budget was going to hold. So I remember, like late March, Akron did a furlough. And so we followed that furlough, both for safety measures to keep people distance and our workforce, but also to save some money, frankly.
Dayton initially furloughed 480 people – almost a quarter of all of the city's workers. The temporary layoffs affected every department except for fire and police.
Once Ohio started to ease restrictions in May, the city called about three-quarters of those workers back. But seeing a big drop in tax revenue, Dayton offered cash payments for employees to retire or quit.
We started taking, I think, decisions that are going to be helpful for us in 21', but are painful for the community, right? I mean, we had to communicate to the citizens of Dayton like, 'look, we not we're not going to have as much staff, we're not going to be able to get to you as quickly. And that's just the way it's going to be.' And that's not a message a mayor likes to give. But, you know, there's only so much money and, you know, we aren't a place that can, you know, budget into the red like the federal government. And so ,that becomes very difficult messaging and just difficult for the community as a whole.
It was also a burden on the city's workforce.
Sean Harber and Yolanda Sanders both work for Dayton and are officers at AFSCME Local 101, the union which represents city workers.
Sanders works as an administrative assistant at Dayton's airport, which lost dozens of workers to voluntary separations, while many others had pay cuts.
The employees are still doing their job. you know, they may not be happy with it, but they're still, everybody's still doing your job.
It used to be, I can tell you, you know, if you worked hard and did what you were supposed to, this was a, you know, job you could retire from. And I couldn't tell anybody with a straight face that anymore.
Harber is a park and maintenance crew leader, and has worked for Dayton off and on for more than 30 years. He says city workers are already being asked to do more with less, and the pandemic is no exception.
What we know right now that, you know, we've had a hiring freeze where we don't have the supplies or money to do certain projects that might have been on the planning books for this year and maybe not even next year. So it's been a real struggle trying to figure out how to cope with what in the future may or may not happen.
Dayton has received about $15 million in federal CARES Act funding so far, going towards first responders, COVID-related community assistance for small business and arts organizations, and supplies like PPE.
But by law, that CARES Act money has to be spent this year. And mayor Whaley says that without additional federal or state aid, nothing is off the table in 2021.
We're looking at kicking back both police and fire recruit classes, which will put less police and fire on the ground. We're looking at recreation, youth services going completely away. These are the kind of decisions that we're having to make.
But some residents on the west side of the Great Miami River, say the city's decisions, even before the pandemic, have often left them behind.
Daj'za Demmings was one of the volunteers at the Gem City Market event this week. She's a lifelong Daytonian and the leader of a group she co-founded called the Dayton Young Black Professionals.
And she took us on a tour of West Dayton.
About a mile from the site of the Gem City Market is the Wright-Dunbar Historic District. It's the site of the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop – now part of a national historic park. And the birthplace of African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Right on Third Street is The Entrepreneur's Shoppe, which sells products made by local vendors. Owner Tae Winston was just in the process of opening the store when the COVID-19 shutdown hit.
I literally ate ham sandwiches everyday. And everything I had, I just put it back in here, I ain't playing.
Winston said that since she was a new business, she didn't qualify for the federal Paycheck Protection Program or city funding for struggling businesses. She's had to dig into her own savings to keep her store open.
Anything that they offer Dayton, they never include Wright-Dunbar or up this way, it's all put for downtown.
Demmings says the west side of the city, which is predominantly Black, has suffered from chronic underinvestment, especially compared to the city's downtown.
There's never been a time where West Dayton has like, 'hey, let's just do it, let's let's go make sure west Dayon is OK.' That's never the case. That's never been the case. And the more that things are going on with the pandemic and we're still asking for things, shows that even more.
Mayor Whaley acknowledges that the city has long struggled with inequality but says the pandemic – and protests this summer over systemic racism – has exposed many to the need to make the city more just.
We still have a lot of work to do, particularly with dealing with inequities. And, you know, we're trying to do that through this year as well. But I mean, yeah, the investment into West Dayton has been ignored for 100 years, you know, so this isn't something that's going to change overnight.
Like many mayors around the country, Whaley is urging the federal government to provide more aid to help cities like hers recover. But as lawmakers in Washington continue to debate a new relief bill, aid for cities like Dayton has become an obstacle.
President Donald Trump:
The Democrats, they want, really want is bailout money for cities that have been poorly run.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has called the aid quote "blue state bailouts."
It just shows just how they just really don't want to support people on the ground. I think they've become completely out of touch on this. We're talking about police officers, we're talking about firefighters, we're talking about picking up your trash. I mean, these are not fancy things that we're doing and the whole idea that they don't want to support local control just shows how far away they've gotten from conservative values.
Montgomery County, which includes Dayton, voted narrowly for Donald Trump in 2016 – marking the first time in 28 years it went Republican. And in a state that remains competitive this election, Whaley says whether Dayton will get more federal help is just one more issue weighing on local voters.
Watch the Full Episode
Hari Sreenivasan joined the PBS NewsHour in 2009. He is the Anchor of PBS NewsHour Weekend and a Senior Correspondent for the nightly program.
Sam Weber has covered everything from living on minimum wage to consumer finance as a shooter/producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior joining NH Weekend, he previously worked for Need to Know on PBS and in public radio. He’s an avid cyclist and Chicago Bulls fan.
Connie Kargbo has been working in the media field since 2007 producing content for television, radio, and the web. As a field producer at PBS NewsHour Weekend, she is involved in all aspects of the news production process from pitching story ideas to organizing field shoots to scripting feature pieces. Before joining the weekend edition of PBS Newshour, Connie was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand where she trained Thai English teachers.
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